Branson’s short journey of joy is more than two decades in the making. He founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 with the aim of creating a winged spacecraft capable of taking up to eight people, including two pilots and six passengers, on rocket-propelled flights that reach more than 50 miles above Earth, as the US government considers the limit. marking of outer space.
CNN Business will also share livestream and run a live blog with updates.
Here’s everything you need to know before the big event.
Who is going?
- Beth Moses, who holds the title of Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic and will handle the training for all of the company’s future customers. She was flown to space at VSS Unity once before during a test flight in 2019. Moses, an aerospace engineer, is not just on the trip. She makes sure that her fellow passengers stay safe and makes sure that Virgin Galactic collects all the data it needs because this flight at the end of the day is still a test flight.
- Colin Bennett, who is the company’s leading operations engineer. Bennett helps evaluate the overall experience and ensure that the cabin equipment is in good shape.
- Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactics Vice President of Government Affairs and Research. Bandla will be aboard science. Virgin Galactic often flies experiments to make use of the microgravity environment, and on this flight, Bandla will handle a University of Florida research project involving the handling of “handheld fixation tubes” according to the company.
Virgin Galactic says Branson’s job will be to use his “observations from his flight training and space experience to improve travel for all future astronaut customers,” according to the company.
What will happen?
When most people think of space travel, they think of an astronaut orbiting the Earth and floating in space for at least a few days.
That’s not what Branson wants to do on VSS Unity, which is the only operational SpaceShipTwo spacecraft that Virgin Galactic has in its arsenal, even if the company builds others.
VSS Unity will be attached to a massive mothership, called the WhiteKnightTwo, which looks like two sleek jets attached to the tip of their wings. The mother ship takes about 45 minutes to cross and slowly climb with VSS Unity to approx. 50,000 feet. Then, when the pilots give the go-ahead, the SpaceShipTwo falls from between WhiteKnightTwo’s two hulls and fires the rocket engine, swinging straight up and roaring past the speed of sound.
VSS Unity is a suborbital space plane, which means it does not drum up enough speed to escape traction from Earth’s gravity. Instead, it rockets more than three times the speed of sound – approx. 2,300 miles per hour – to more than 50 miles above the ground. At the top of the flight path, Branson and his fellow passengers experience brief weightlessness. It’s like an extended version of the weightlessness you experience when you reach the top of a roller coaster, just before gravity brings your carriage – or, in Branson’s case, your space plan – slides back down to the ground.
After about a minute, the engine shuts off, leaving the spacecraft and passengers suspended in microgravity as the SpaceShipTwo rolls on its belly, offering passengers a nice view of the ground below and the shiny black void above.
To end the trip, SpaceShipTwo uses what is called a spring system to lift its wings and mimic the shape of a badminton shuttle lock to rearrange the vehicle as it begins to fall back to the ground. Then it lowers its wings as it slides back to a runway.
A group of journalists are allowed to watch the launch. CNN Business will post live updates here as well as carry live TV coverage.
How does this differ from what SpaceX and Blue Origin do?
Bezos’ Blue Origin took a very different approach to its suborbital space tourism rocket. The company’s New Shepard vehicle is a capsule and rocket system that is launched vertically from a launch pad that sends passengers on a screaming 11-minute flight to more than 60 miles high before the capsule exposes parachutes to gently bring them down again.
But when companies start commercial operations, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will be direct competitors. They are both after the demographics of ultra-rich thrill seekers willing to discard hundreds of thousands of dollars to experience a supersonic bowel movement and a few minutes of weightlessness.
Elon Musk – the other, Other things space billionaire – runs a very different operation than what Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will exhibit this month.
Although Branson’s other company – Virgin Orbit – has put a rocket into orbit, and Bezos’ Blue Origin plans to get there with a rocket called New Glenn, none of the companies have quite reached the headlines or waves in the space sector that SpaceX has.
How risky is that?
Space travel is historically fraught with danger. Although the risk is not necessarily astronomical for Branson’s excursion into suborbital space, as Virgin Galactic has spent the better part of the last two decades driving its spacecraft through test flights.
Still, whenever a human attaches itself to a rocket, risks are involved – and Branson has apparently decided that for him it’s worth it.